A Cinematic Cold War: The US, China, and Diplomacy at the Box Office
By Derek Eanes
Within the last two years, the release of China’s blockbuster Battle at Lake Changjin duology and the big-budget Hollywood war biopic Devotion indicate a new trend—the re-emergence of the Korean War in the cultural zeitgeist in both countries. Amidst a spike in geopolitical aggression between US and CCP leadership, the domestic entertainment industries within both states have reacted by looking to past confrontations for inspiration. As such, the war’s pop culture renaissance has been subsumed into a newly-reinvigorated propaganda effort to normalize the great power competition to the public via a massively popular medium—cinema.
The role of films as propaganda is well-documented, but compared to other conflicts, the Korean War is remarkably underrepresented in this respect. What has become known as the “Forgotten War” in the US experienced only brief wartime popularity; between 1951 and 1953, 22 Korean War films were released. By contrast, China’s nascent film industry only released one, Battle on Shangganling Mountain, in 1956. The enduring images of the war in America, though, arrived later. The Manchurian Candidate (1962), described by Howard Hampton as “a flop-sweat fantasia on political conspiracies, right-wing nut jobs under the secret control of Communist handlers, and state-sponsored brainwashing and assassination as practical tools of realpolitik,” positioned China as every McCarthyite’s worst nightmare. 1970 saw the release of Robert Altman’s satirical comedy M*A*S*H; later adapted into an even-more famous television series, its depiction of the war through the eyes of an Army medical team was deeply rooted in the cynicism emerging from America’s then-ongoing war in Vietnam. How these films depict China, however, differ wildly—in The Manchurian Candidate, they are the architects of the brainwashing project, while M*A*S*H rarely depicted the Chinese at all—and when it did, it was far more sympathetic.
With 1979 came the headwinds of normalization and a diminished necessity to portray the other as villainous—until the 2010s, when the equation became much different. Where previous party leaders had advocated for measured and uncontroversial statements, under the leadership of Premier Xi Jinping, China has pursued a far more proactive foreign policy than ever before. As a result, in recent years, Chinese officials have become bullish in defending their country’s actions, whether it concerns territorial claims on Taiwan Western policy experts would term this as ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy—so named after a wildly successful Chinese action film series. This diplomatic tactic primarily focuses on generating an assertive and aggressive presence to defend Chinese values—just as the protagonists of these films do. The character of Long Feng (portrayed by actor-director Wu Jing, who also stars in The Battle of Lake Changjin) is essentially China’s answer to Rambo; that is, as an avatar for a political agenda rather than a well-defined protagonist. Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) provides a great example; taking place in an unnamed African country, it sees Long Feng fight to protect Chinese aid workers from “Dyon Corps” mercenaries (an allusion to DynCorp, a major western defense contractor). More overtly, it ends on a Chinese passport, emblazoned with a message: “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China. When you encounter danger in a foreign land, do not give up! Please remember, at your back stands a strong motherland.” Such quotes are as explicit an endorsement of China’s aggressive international posturing as any outright statement. Nevertheless, the film’s financial and critical success saw it become the highest-grossing non-English film ever and was China’s submission to the 90th Academy Awards—only to be surpassed by 2021’s Battle at Lake Changjin.
Within the last two years, the US and China’s dynamic has again shifted towards confrontation. November 2021 saw President Biden and President Xi meet formally for the first time, and the latter stated that support for Taiwan was like . In August 2022, things reached a climax as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a state visit to Taiwan despite heavy protestation from Chinese officials. In response, China conducted significant military exercises that exceeded those of previous crises. Amidst these dramatic events comes the release of new Korean War films in China and the US, which purposefully display biased views of the conflict. The Battle at Lake Changjin and its sequel, Water Gate Bridge, depict the perspective of Chinese soldiers fighting against US forces at the Chosin Reservoir. In a similar vein, Devotion depicts the experience of American naval aviators who participated in the very same battle. Each film’s depiction of their respective belligerents speaks much to their agendas; the Chinese films, for example, exemplify the virtues of the PLA soldier, whereas the Americans are depicted as arrogant, vain, and unmotivated by any patriotic idealism. One only must see the film’s depiction of General Douglas MacArthur to understand China’s view of US policy as motivated by vanity and arrogance. Meanwhile, Devotion takes a different approach— while ostensibly a biopic about the first African American naval aviator, it also attempts to show the US military as able to overcome the prejudices of its members and display true valor in the face of an insurmountable foe. In its battle sequences, Chinese soldiers are depicted as they have often been before; a faceless, many-numbered foe whose overwhelming numbers are countered by US aerial superiority.
If the primary objective of these films was to achieve critical success, then they would pass with flying colors. But they also are pursuing real political utility; to acclimatize the population to the very idea of a hegemonic conflict. Further, they appear to normalize the concept of winning any potential war with their adversary— a dangerous suggestion in a world where nuclear escalation is a legitimate concern. For that reason alone, it’s time to call “cut.”
Derek is a second-year M.A. candidate at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall, specializing in Foreign Policy Analysis and International Organizations. An associate editor for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, he achieved a bachelor’s degree at Flagler College, majoring in International Studies with an additional minor in History. He hopes to continue his studies regarding the intersection of international politics with culture.